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Justice System Is 'Broken,' Lawyers Say

With soaring prison populations, especially of minorities, the U.S. must seek alternatives, bar association urges.

June 24, 2004|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The American criminal justice system relies too heavily on imprisoning people and needs to consider more effective alternatives, according to a study released Wednesday by the American Bar Assn., the nation's largest lawyers' organization.

"For more than 20 years, we've gotten tougher on crime," said Dennis W. Archer, a former Detroit mayor and the group's current president. But it is unclear, he said, whether the U.S. is any safer for having 2.1 million people behind bars, including 160,000 in California.

"We can no longer sit by as more and more people -- particularly in minority communities -- are sent away for longer and longer periods of time while we make it more and more difficult for them to return to society after they serve their time," Archer said at a Washington news conference. "The system is broken. We need to fix it."

Both the number of incarcerated Americans and the cost of locking them up are massive, the report said, and have been escalating significantly in recent years.

Between 1974 and 2002, the number of inmates in federal and state prisons rose six-fold. By 2002, 476 out of every 100,000 Americans were imprisoned, according to Justice Department statistics. That compares with 100 per every 100,000 in Western European countries such as England, Germany and Italy.

In 1982, the states and federal government spent $9 billion on jails and prisons. By 1999, the figure had risen to $49 billion.

The study was launched in response to an August speech by Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in which he urged the association to study "the inadequacies -- and the injustices -- in our prison and correctional systems."

Kennedy, who was appointed to the high court by President Reagan, said last year that "our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long." He called for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, saying the system gives prosecutors too much power to, in effect, determine sentences by the nature of the charges they file.

He also made pointed remarks about the demographics of the nation's inmates. "Nationwide, more than 40% of the prison population consists of African American inmates," Kennedy said. "In some cities, more than 50% of young African American men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system."

That reality is not likely to change, according to the group's study. Based on trends, a black male born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned during his lifetime, while the chances for a Latino male are 1 in 6, and for a white male, 1 in 17.

On Wednesday, Archer and George Washington University law professor Stephen A. Saltzburg, who led the association's Kennedy Commission, presented its report to the justice at its Washington headquarters. "Society ought to ask itself how it's allocating its resources," Kennedy said in accepting the report, noting that while the number of prisoners increases, the nation's schools do not have adequate funds for music and sports programs.

The report contains numerous reform proposals. Among them: the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws; more funding for substance abuse and mental health programs; assistance for prisoners reentering society; task forces to study racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system; and expanded use of clemency and pardons to reduce sentences.

"These recommendations are intended to make our criminal justice systems more effective and to utilize our limited resources more efficiently," Saltzburg said. "For too long we have focused almost exclusively on locking up criminals.... We have to remember that roughly 95% of the people we lock up eventually get out. Our communities will be safer and our corrections budgets less strained if we better prepare inmates to successfully reenter society without returning to a life of crime."

The commission said that, based on past statistics, about one-third of the 650,000 inmates set to be released this year were expected to return to prison.

The report was based on nine months of work by a panel of lawyers and judges from around the country, including lawyer Andrea S. Ordin, who was the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles during the Carter administration. Public hearings were held in Washington, San Antonio and Sacramento.

The commission put considerable emphasis on reducing recidivism rates. The report recommended that Congress and state legislatures eliminate "unnecessary legal barriers" that make it difficult for released prisoners to become productive members of society. In particular, the report noted, individuals convicted of drug offenses, even minor ones, were permanently ineligible for federal student loans, housing assistance or other public aid.

In the same vein, the report urged Congress to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, including those for drug crimes, suggesting that the laws tended "to be tough on the wrong people." For example, the average federal drug trafficking sentence was 72.7 months in 2001, compared with a 34.3-month average in manslaughter cases.

The commission's recommendations will be taken up at the group's annual conference in Atlanta in August. If the 400,000-member organization endorses the recommendations, its leaders will then be in a position to formally advocate the changes at the state and federal levels.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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